Even without any official religious services scheduled, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in northwest suburban Des Plaines is taking extreme measures in an effort to keep crowds from gathering due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The shrine took the extraordinary step Friday of removing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the eve of her feast day, when tens of thousands of people would normally gather at the site to sing and pray.
“We have to repose the image so that she is not available at the shrine,” said Fr. Esequiel Sanchez, the shrine’s rector. He said that involved ceremoniously taking the image down from the glass-encased outdoor niche where it is normally displayed. Sanchez called it a matter of safety, given the pandemic. “It’s that dangerous, and we don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way.”
The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico and a beloved figure in Mexican Catholicism. The open-air shrine in Des Plaines, the largest shrine in the nation, typically attracts more than 200,000 visitors over the course of Dec. 11 and Dec. 12, according to a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
The shrine draws processions of Mexican cowboys on horseback. Semi-truck drivers line up for a collective blessing. Local parishes organize pilgrimages. Celebrations feature Aztec dancers, mariachi musicians, and food. There are rosaries and midnight Mass. Parents dress their children up like Juan Diego, the indigenous peasant to whom the Virgin Mary is supposed to have appeared in 1531.
The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe — with her dark hair and skin — was miraculously imprinted on Juan Diego’s cloak after the Virgin Mary appeared to him.
Today, that 500-year-old cloak is enshrined at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City; the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines is an exact replica of the original.
“The beautiful part about the shrine is that it’s an open shrine. People can come without knocking on the door,” said Sanchez. “But then it’s hard to secure when you have to close it.”
The shrine announced weeks ago it would be cancelling all in-person celebrations to commemorate the Virgin’s Feast Day.
Sanchez said they’d been watching the situation since August, and as they saw the number of COVID-19 cases spike, they realized “it would be irresponsible for us to have such a massive event. … We just can’t do it.”
The shrine is prohibiting parking nearby. All lights on the property will be turned off. If people do come, “they will be gingerly invited to go home,” said Sanchez. “We’ll probably give them [hot] chocolate and be as respectful as we can. But there’s nothing here.”
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Chicago said the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was moved Friday morning to the Marian chapel on the grounds of the shrine.
Photos provided by the archdiocese show workers removing the image from its niche and transporting it under a white-cloth tent held up by wooden poles. The shrine posted a video of the “solemn repose of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
The image will be returned to its normal place on Sunday, Sanchez said.
Sanchez said his message to the faithful was “not today. Come by anytime during the year, but we have to keep safe. The pandemic is real. We bury people, and we bury them because they died of that.”
Sanchez is encouraging people to build their own shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe at home.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.